Much has been made of President Obama’s announcement that he will begin a US troop drawdown from Afghanistan in July 2011. But on Tuesday, military officials signaled that they will continue to seek leeway in how, precisely, to define “drawdown.”
Rather than sending soldiers back home, for example, commanders may give troops new jobs in the war-torn country, such as training Afghan security forces, according to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Or they may simply reposition troops in more troubled regions, he told reporters this morning.
Back in June, Mr. Obama seemed to step back from July 2011 as a hard-and-fast withdrawal date for US troops, pushing instead the idea that the date should be considered a goal for US troops to begin handing security responsibility over to Afghan forces.
Tuesday, as Mr. Rasmussen arrived in Washington to meet with Obama in advance of a November NATO summit, the NATO Secretary General seemed to take this idea a step further, that even “if we transition a province here and there,” soldiers in the area “cannot just leave Afghanistan.”
What’s more, Rasmussen introduced a term that is likely to begin cropping up among Pentagon officials in the months ahead: "transition dividend."
“You may very well see that what you might call a ‘transition dividend’ will be reinvested in other areas,” Rasmussen explains. Troops “might be needed in other regions.” Or, he says, they could be used to bolster training of Afghan police and soldiers. In short, he notes, “Transition doesn’t mean exit.”
US military officials have gone on the record noting that while they support President Obama’s announcement of a July 2011 drawdown date, it was not their idea. During a July Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona asked US commander Gen. David Petraeus whether “there was a recommendation from you or anyone in the military that we set a date of July 2011?” Petraeus responded, “There was not.”
In months that followed the announcement, the Obama administration “has given itself an enormous amount of wiggle room” regarding the drawdown size and scope, says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised US commanders in Afghanistan. “They have been keeping their options open.”
Petreaus is now slated to get 2,000 troops to train Afghan security forces in addition to the surge of 30,000 US forces largely in place as of last week. These 2,000 new troops may draw from other International Security Assistance Force member countries, but the bulk of them are expected to come from the United States. “There is no contradiction between a request for more trainers and a gradual transition” to Afghan security force control, Rasmussen told reporters.
The key, he says, is that the transition be “irreversible.” That’s because ISAF troops “won’t be in position to take control back once we hand it over. That,” he adds, “would be a disaster.”